Public sector leaders throwing open the doors

By Harley Dennett

Friday October 30, 2015

Michael Thawley

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley really has a problem with locked doors in public administration. Writing in The Australian today, Thawley laments the barriers that exist at all levels of the bureaucracy, both externally and within:

“Doors are important. I wasn’t expecting to find quite so many closed ones when I returned to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet after a gap of nearly 20 years. Every work group seemed hermetically sealed behind its own door. To reach any colleagues — even to get out of my own door — I had to swipe my access card.

“What signal, I wondered, are we sending about the value we place on sharing ideas in an interconnected world?”

Most people join the public service, not to secure a job for life, but to make a difference, he says. But Australia need public servants who are willing to take up the internal fight for good policy, he argues, even if their ideas are rejected at the first go. “Just make sure the evidence and the argument are better next time.”

As the most senior Commonwealth public servant, who revamped recruitment this month by swapped jargonistic selection criteria for the one-page pitches used in the private sector, Thawley is setting an example to his (mostly much younger) secretarial colleagues.

So too are his Department of Premier and Cabinet counterparts in New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria. Blair Comley, Kym Winter-Dewhirst and Chris Eccles have all taken to the lectern in recent months to push the case for public sector renewal and more diverse skillsets at all levels.

As a lapsed lawyer himself, Eccles says there are more than enough lapsed lawyers in central agencies and he wants to throw open the doors to designers, programmers, artists and engineers. Thawley repeats that theme today with the call for philosophers, mathematicians and physicists to fill policy roles.

It’s not that career administration professionals are going away — much valuable expertise has been learned over decades of public service — but it’s looking increasingly like the public service of the future will be a more interesting, diverse and vibrant hothouse of ideas that draws upon people’s whole selves and experiences.

Thawley drops one more interesting anecdote, that perhaps the public service cares a little too much about hierarchy. Its number one stakeholder, it seems, doesn’t:

“No prime minister I’ve served has asked about the level of his briefer; prime ministers just want to hear from the person who knows the answer.”

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